We Think Consumers Shouldn’t Be Your Innovators – Here’s Why

09.06.17 / David Lemley

There’s few things as frustrating as having a research- and consumer-validated innovation flop once it hits shelves. You’ve spent a huge chunk of change on surveys and focus groups proving your new product will win at retail, so what went wrong? If you go back to where you started – with consumer-based innovation – you’ll find your answer. Consumers are important to the innovation channel, don’t get us wrong. But if you’re looking for seismic, category-defining innovation, you need to look beyond your customers.

In an era of focus group frenzy and online surveys intended to measure purchase intent, Retail Voodoo offers a contrarian view.

Consumers Don’t Know How to Innovate

If you ask a customer what they want, they’ll tell you one of two things: it should be cheaper or it should be quicker. They just want the same thing for less money and faster. Your current audience cannot tell you what your future audience wants. It’s just not possible.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
-Henry Ford

Truly innovative products – like the iPhone or Tesla – fail consumer testing or never even go through consumer testing. Steve Jobs did not test the iPhone because consumers in focus group settings and online surveys tend to lack imagination. Someone who has never seen an iPhone could most likely not tell you they wanted a hand-held device that could make calls, surf the web, navigate the world, and record video. They certainly could not have told you this product would take off in such an explosive manner. Apple changed the trajectory of human communication forever. Elon Musk did not conduct consumer testing for Tesla because he had a radical vision he knew in his gut would succeed. As a result, he revolutionized a conventional category – transportation vehicles and energy – and now Tesla owns the tech world.

Consumers Only Tell You What They Think You Want to Hear

The reason focus groups and surveys fail is because consumers will also tell you what they think you want to hear. They say what they think they need to say to be liked. They’ll say they exercise four to five times a week when in reality, they hardly work out once a week. They think “that’s what I want to be doing, so I should say that’s what I do.” Statistically, the majority of men add an inch to their height on their drivers’ licenses. It makes them feel better. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all done something like this.

It’s a strange notion, isn’t it? How can you possibly give consumers what they want or need if you don’t ask them?

Customer feedback can often guide entrepreneurs, product developers, designers and marketers towards problems, but feedback should not be used to dictate the solution.

“Customer feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It's terrible at telling you what you should do next.”
-Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote

Design for the Consumers You Want, Not Just the Ones You Have

Let’s take Alden’s Ice Cream, for example. Before our work with them went to shelf, they spent a large amount on money focus group testing different packaging. When we saw the design that won, we asked their team to go back and examine their data. They found the “winning” design had not won by enough votes to be statistically significant. If that wasn’t enough proof, they also only talked to current customers when conducting this research. These consumers already had loyalty to the current packaging, hence why they leaned toward a design that felt more familiar. However, we pointed out that through a frosted, freezer section window, the chosen design would be illegible. After developing a comprehensive brand strategy using this insight, we introduced a new design, and Alden’s saw 45 percent growth in just one year.

Now, don’t get us wrong – surveys and focus groups are good for continuity and making sure you don’t alienate your loyal customers. This work well when you take a single design and test different features like certification, and benefits messaging. Consumer testing is a tool to use, for sure. But it’s the least accurate tool. For truly revolutionary innovation that disrupts your category, you must dive deeper.

Learn to Make Mistakes Quickly

Instead of focus groups and surveys, we use our network of humans and expertise as the lab to play in. We take the pulse of the internal collective of the company, using trusted stakeholders to prove our data-based theories. We encourage clients to make mistakes quickly, step by step, until they get it right. Bruce Mau’s incomplete manifesto for growth explains that the process is more important than the outcome and in order to see growth, “good” needs to be thrown out the door. The right answers live within the wrong answers and solutions exist within accidents.

Brands need to listen to what the data the data whispers. For our food and beverage brand strategy clients, we use trend analysis to flavor forecast. We look at what chefs are doing, have people do taste tests, and conduct extensive research. In the case of DRY, we suggested unique flavor offerings to their product portfolio and saw massive growth within their targeted foodie niche. This is also why sampling is such a better format for testing theoretical situations. Consumers gave real-time feedback on “out there” flavors produced in small batches, so that the brand could know if it was worth creating larger batches of that flavor. But if the flavor flopped, that was fine – for the cost of one batch of product, the brand learned invaluable insight. Brands need to learn mistakes quickly – if they have an idea, they need to test it rather than ponder it.

“It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.”
-Steve Jobs

Ultimately, you can have all of the data in the world. But if you don’t understand how to turn that data into insight or how to listen to your gut instinct, you will be wasting time and money.

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